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Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

The beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan accent the view at Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk during a recent, unseasonably warm winter day. The park is part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and an example of quality of life development in Northwest Indiana in recent years.

PORTAGE — A chemical spill from the U.S. Steel Midwest Plant into the Burns Waterway was likely caused by a failed expansion joint in the rinse water pipe.

U.S. Steel issued a statement shortly after noon on Wednesday of the latest findings of the investigation into the spill which caused the closure of area beaches.

"At the U. S. Steel Midwest Plant on Tuesday April 11, there was a release of process waste water from the Tin and Tin Free electroplating lines. The waste water is from the process used to treat the steel strip after electroplating, and the rinse water from this process is conveyed via pipe to a dedicated treatment plant.  The preliminary investigation revealed that an expansion joint in the rinse water pipe failed and resulted in the water being released to a different wastewater treatment plant and ultimately Burns Waterway through an outfall," according to the statement.

"Upon detection of the release, notifications were made to the IDEM, the NRC, Coast Guard, and the Porter County Sheriff; all production processes were shut down; and additional steps to mitigate the impact are being taken.  These steps include the isolation and repair of the damaged pipe, recovery of material, and the addition of a water treatment compound, sodium trithiocarbonate (CNa2S3), to the waste water treatment plant to convert and aid in the removal of hexavalent chromium.  U. S. Steel continues to work with the various governmental agencies involved to monitor and resolve the issue," it continued.

The spill happened sometime Tuesday in the waterway withing 100 yards of Lake Michigan and prompted the closure of two beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore within Portage and the nearby beach at the town of Ogden Dunes.

"This morning, (U.S. Steel) reported a wastewater discharge to the Burns Waterway, within 100 yards of Lake Michigan," said Rachel Bassler of the EPA in a news release on Tuesday evening. "The EPA has determined that the wastewater contains hexavalent chromium, a toxic byproduct of industrial processes. EPA is working with the company to contain the spill. At this time, it’s not known how much has been spilled."

"Until more information is known, people and their pets should have no contact with the water of Lake Michigan or Burns Waterway in the West Beach and Portage Lakefront areas,"  a release from the National Park Service stated.

A release from Save the Dunes reinforced the message, saying that this is the same "carcinogenic chemical that appeared in the 2000 biographical film, 'Erin Brockovich.'" 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, direct skin contact with hexavalent chromium can cause a nonallergic skin irritation. Contact with non-intact skin can also lead to chrome ulcers. These are small crusted skin sores with a rounded border. They heal slowly and leave scars.

The Indiana American Water in Ogden Dunes has shut down its water intake and will use water reserves, according to the EPA. 

"EPA is monitoring the waterway and Lake Michigan. This sampling does not show that the hexavalent chromium has reached Lake Michigan. EPA will continue to monitor and will provide updates as needed," the EPA release said.

The National Park Service will continue to closely monitor the situation and will provide an update on park closures after 10 a.m. Wednesday they said. 

Attempts to reach a representative from U.S. Steel were unsuccessful. 

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.

Deputy Editor - Digital/Audience Engagement

Summer is Digital and Audience Engagement Editor at The Times. Her blog documents The Times’ and Gary Chamber of Commerce’s Community Civility Counts campaign. The idea is simple: Treat everyone with respect and dignity, even those you disagree with.